Blinken says US weighs pressure, diplomatic options for North Korea

(From left) US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong and South Korean Defence Minister Suh Wook at the Foreign Ministry in Seoul.
(From left) US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong and South Korean Defence Minister Suh Wook at the Foreign Ministry in Seoul.PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (REUTERS) - Both pressure and diplomatic options are on the table for dealing with North Korea, United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Thursday (March 18), hours after a senior North Korean diplomat rejected any talks until Washington changed its policies.

Mr Blinken told a joint briefing with South Korean officials in Seoul that the administration of President Joe Biden would complete its review of North Korea policy in the next few weeks in close consultation with its allies.

"President Biden plans to complete a North Korea policy review in the weeks ahead in close cooperation and consultation with the Republic of Korea, with Japan and with other key partners, including resuming pressure options and the potential for future diplomacy," Mr Blinken said. 

He declined to elaborate when asked what approach the United States would take after the review. 

But when asked at a separate online roundtable with Korean journalists if Mr Biden would meet Mr Kim, Mr Blinken said Washington is exploring how to convince North Korea to make progress on denuclearisation by considering both "different kinds of pressure points" and diplomacy. 

"In a sense, everything is on the table. We have a very open mind about it," he said. 

The comments came hours after North Korean official Choe Son Hui called the Biden administration's attempts to contact Pyongyang a "cheap trick", in the North's first public statement on the matter.

Mr Blinken was making his first visit as secretary of state, alongside US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin.

They issued a joint statement with their South Korean counterparts, Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong and Defence Minister Suh Wook, vowing to work together on regional issues from climate change and the coronavirus pandemic to trade and North Korea.

"The ministers and secretaries emphasised that North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile issues are a priority for the alliance, and reaffirmed a shared commitment to address and resolve these issues," they said in the statement.

While the joint statement largely focused on shared concerns and interests, the briefing showed potential sources of future policy discord on North Korea and China. 

Mr Blinken said its North Korea strategy would not only address security concerns but also the "repressive" North Korean government’s "widespread, systematic abuses" on its people. 

Activists have accused the administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in and former US President Donald Trump of overlooking the North Korean human rights issue as they sought to improve ties and pursued summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. 

"The goals of this policy are clear: we’re committed to the denuclearisation of North Korea, reducing the broader threat the DPRK poses to the United States and our allies, and improving the lives of all Koreans," Mr Blinken said. 

Mr Moon has called for Mr Biden to build on progress made by Mr Kim and Mr Trump from their unprecedented summit in Singapore in 2018, which Mr Chung said could provide the groundwork for future talks between Washington and Pyongyang. 

"We think the Singapore agreement deserves sufficient consideration as it has basic principles for improving North Korea-US relations, establishing peace and achieving denuclearisation on the Korean peninsula," Mr Chung told the briefing. 

Mr Blinken also blamed China at the briefing for undermining regional stability and security with its "aggressive and authoritarian behaviour," and stressed its role in convincing North Korea to denuclearise. 

Beijing has rebuked Mr Blinken’s similar remarks in Tokyo, and his renewed criticism came ahead of his first in-person meetings with Chinese counterparts in Alaska on Thursday. 

Mr Blinken called for unity among allies, despite Seoul’s hesitance to provoke China, its largest economic partner and an ally of North Korea. 

"It is more important than ever that we stand together for the values for the interest that unite us," he said.